JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – A split decision in a trial against clergy and faith leaders who protested for Medicaid expansion in the Senate Gallery in 2014 has left supporters of the group fuming.
The “Medicaid 23” were arrested by Capitol Police for singing hymns and praying in the gallery during debate avoided a charge of obstructing the Senate. However, the jury passed down a verdict of guilty in the case of first degree trespassing for each defendant. That charge carries with it a maximum sentence of six months in jail and a fine of up to $500.
However, the jury at Cole County Courthouse Thursday morning elected not to sentence anyone to jail time. A fine will be decided by a judge.
Sens. Kiki Curls, D-Kansas City, and Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, both testified on behalf of the defense Tuesday, arguing that the protestors did not interrupt the business of the Senate. Schaefer’s testimony in particular surprised many given his intense opposition to Medicaid expansion.
The Medicaid 23 consists of many African-Americans, and some believe the prosecution only acted as vigorously as it did because of the racial makeup of the defendants. However, that number has been reduced to 22 since one defendant has been unable to attend the trial in Jefferson City.
Rep. Brandon Ellington, the chair of the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus, denounced the decision as an attack on First Amendment principles.
“Under today’s verdict, the right to peacefully protest and petition elected officials for a redress of grievances no longer exists in the Missouri Capitol,” Ellington said in a statement. “Under today’s verdict, daring to challenge the powerful on behalf of the powerless with nothing more than prayer and song is a crime.
“This was a purely political prosecution that never should have been brought, and its result must be overturned on appeal if freedom is to be more than just a concept and constitutional rights more than mere words on a page.”
Rep. Jay Barnes, an attorney by trade, defended the 22 protestors alongside Nimrod Chapel, the president of the Missouri NAACP. In his closing statement, Barnes said as much of the prosecution.
Prosecutor Mark Richardson painted the Medicaid 23 as little more than troublemakers instead of protestors and confused Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, the senator interrupted by the prayers, chants and hymnals, and Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, another black female state senator from St. Louis. Richardson said that the protestors had harmed Nasheed’s chances in her pursuit of running for Congress.
Chappelle-Nadal was the one who ran an unsuccessful bid for Congress against Congressman Lacy Clay. She announced her bid for congress in early 2016, months after the unrest in her district from the death of Michael Brown.
Nasheed also supports the Medicaid 23, and the prosecution never called her to the stand.
— Jamilah Nasheed (@SenatorNasheed) August 17, 2016
Other supporters of the group from both the left and the right also denounced the verdict on social media.
— Jennifer Bukowsky (@esqonfire) August 18, 2016
— Jolie Justus (@joliejustus) August 18, 2016
— Marshall Griffin (@MarshallGReport) August 18, 2016